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What Happened to Writing as a Political Act?

April 21, 2013 3 comments

What happened to writing as a political act?

I almost got embroiled in a lengthy facebook conversation a few weeks ago because I suggested that the act of writing should be political. The reply I received, of course, was that some people like to write for fun and there’s nothing wrong with that. Rather than launch into one of my usual tirades that generally lead to unceremonious facebook de-friendings I decided to sit on that thought for a few weeks; and a few weeks later I realised that I simply disagreed even more. Because whatever way you spin it, writing is a political act. And frustratingly authors and readers are in constant denial about the political content of their writing.

The recent self-publishing phenomenon has in many respects been one of the worst things to happen to my reading in a long time. It may be a great publishing model (I’m sure that I’ll be driven to self-publish something in my lifetime) but it has become a marketing and quality control nightmare, a constant cause of frustration and a huge reason for me to disengage with current releases. And frustrating because so many people want to engage with it for the very reasons that drive me away, they feel like they’re “sticking it to the publishing-man or something. As a fan/user of the popular reading site Goodreads and as a heavy Kindle user, one cannot avoid being bombarded every day by half-baked advertisements and half-baked literary content from a new author every day who advertises themselves as the next big thing in fantasy literature, or vampire fiction. Or romance. Or erotica. For myself I’m so staggeringly uncompelled to click, follow through or buy any of these (Kindle daily deal needs to die a death) that it just makes me loathe their very existence. Because Twilight is bad enough. 50 Shades of Grey is bad enough. The Hunger Games is … probably bad enough. I certainly don’t want to know about “The Lives and Loves of a Virgin Vampire Academy Princess” or “Fields of Thorns and Gods and Magic: The Drearily Pointless Overlong Saga of Magic Magic Magic and Dragons Part 5”. They’re not going to knock my socks off, I don’t need to read them to know I can barely get through the work of famed authors like Michael Moorcock for their derivative laziness, so “Hot Shades of Vampire Sex! Sex! Sex! vs Werewolves pt 9 for Young Adults” is clearly not going to work for me.

But it feels sometimes like that’s what the publishing – or self-publishing – industry has become. And of course someone is going to argue that popular literature is great and if people like to read it and people like to write then that’s great and we should embrace it and stick it to the man. And I do hate the-publishing industry as it stood pre-Kindle. And it is great.

Only, it kinda isn’t.

It isn’t because all of this writing is political and people are pretending that it’s not. Which means that an overwhelming ideology of not-caring about politics or society or life has flooded the book market. Readers are becoming lazy, writers are becoming lazier and reading and writing fiction has come to embody everything that I believed the act of reading not-to-be when I first opened Charlotte Brontes Jane Eyre as an older teenager. Because reading Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Charles Dickens and so on during my informative years, there’s one thing I couldn’t fail to notice and that was that reading is a political act. Reading JRR Tolkien or Stephen Donaldson and George Martin, Gene Wolfe or Robin Hobb as a fantasy aficionado there’s one thing I can’t fail to notice and that’s reading these books is a political acts. By that I mean that as both a form of literature and as entertainment the people who have sat down and written these books have an ethos, a world-view, an ideology and an interest in society that they wish to convey by writing those books, and as a reader if I pick one up and start to read it I’m subverting the expectations to conformity of those around me by allowing my world-view to engage with and be informed by another’s. Through the act of reading I can become something more than the person who wakes up, goes to work, carries out tasks like a drone, agrees with what they see and hear on the news, and then goes to bed.

This isn’t a distinction between high and low art in the sense that many literary commentators would have you believe that there should be. I’m not arguing for the distinctive turn of Joyce’s prose over the childish strains of a Patrick Rothfuss or Scott Lynch. The psychological insight into the human condition of a Flaubert or Tolstoy over the petty concerns of a JK Rowling. I believe that “popular fiction” as it is called has as big a part to play in shaping who we are as the literary giants that make up the literary canon ever did and that one ignores either at their own detriment.

But what truly bugs me is the de-politicisation of the act of writing in an effort to allow more people to have more fun more of the time at better prices. An illusion of empowerment at the expense of a genuine political voice. If anyone ever asks me why I write – which generally they don’t because I’m unpublished – I tell them it’s because literature is important to me, because I’ve spent my entire life reading and engaging with it and I want some day to influence someone else – to change someone’s life – like many authors before me have influenced and changed me. To have someone say “I just do it for fun” seems to me to miss the point in the most fundamental way because it takes the act of writing and makes it a meaningless act, in a similar way to going to watch a football match. When people ask me why I criticise sport and prefer reading, and I respond that sport is repetitive and aimless and designed to stop one from thinking or questioning, they generally add into their argument “well you read stories and watch movies that are pointless anyway. Star Wars is pointless, Harry Potter is pointless” and so on, and it’s surprisingly difficult to respond to someone who holds theworldview, that “all art I pointless.” and to convince them that art, popular or literary, always has a point. Because to this sport-afficionado, whatever way you spin it we all live, go to work and die don’t we? So why not just have fun in the meantime?

And I genuinely want those authors to have fun and to enjoy self-publishing and I want people to enjoy reading those works. Only I don’t really. And I don’t want them constantly shoved in my face like the football results are. Because there’s a world of literature out there that doesn’t involve the narcissistic egotism that the self-publishing model so readily embraces. But how is someone to know whether they should reject a certain author/work – such as Stephanie Meyer (who isn’t self-published but reads like it and has been the dominant force in dumbing down attitudes surrounding popular literature in the last 10 years) – in favour of another if we reciprocate this idea that reading is for fun, as opposed to the idea that “reading is fun because it’s interesting and rewarding” it’s the difference between killing time and genuinely engaging with your reading.

How political an act it is to ignore politics!

It’s the ultimate political act, to say that politics don’t matter, engagement doesn’t matter. To essentially say that reading and writing don’t matter. It’s like voting by not-voting, since a no-vote helps the dominant political party of the day maintain power.

When I sit down to write if I thought that it didn’t matter I don’t think that I could ever bring myself to do it. The process would be akin to my day job and I’d be helping or enriching the lives of no-one. If someone ever reads my work and says to me “it’s a flippancy, it doesn’t matter” I don’t care if they enjoyed it, I’ll feel that I’ve fundamentally failed on some level.

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If You Play the Game of Internet Feminism, You Win or You Die.

April 29, 2012 6 comments

This article on feminism in George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series – subtly entitled “Enter Ye Myne Mystic World of Gayng-Raype: What the “R” Stands for in “George R.R. Martin””  has irritated me ever since I read it and I’ve been wondering why I should even continue to think about and consider a piece of criticism on a book that seems to me to be so blatantly incorrect in both its assumptions and conclusions about a book. After all, it’s not even as if I’m married to the idea that ASOIAF is a flawless masterpiece that cannot be spoken about or considered with any sense of negativity. It’s a work of narrative and popular excellence, but it also has its share of flaws, slips and bad prose writing. It’s certainly also very valid to question the political assumptions behind a text and I’d be the first person to encourage people to do so, and to go ahead and write about it.

I don’t think that the author’s bullishness really helped, though I’d probably have been applauding her aggressive attitude if she’d actually been correct in her argument, or at least appreciated the complexities of engaging a text in this way. I didn’t take kindly, either, to the way she so brazenly censors the comments of others or shuts down conversations she doesn’t care to engage with. (“we’re hogging the conversation, we need to let others speak” in internet terms means “I’ve either lost this argument quite badly and need to save face, or I got bored with it.”) I would never do that, although at the end of the day it’s her blog so I guess that she has every right to respond and censor it as she sees fit. Neither are some of her observations all that terrible. I actually agree with a lot of her individual points and comments regarding the female characters, it’s simply the way she ties them all together badly, drawing absolutely terrible conclusions that makes her overall “I don’t like your toys – I have higher ground” demeanour grating to my nerves.

None of that helped but then, I thought, this is the internet. And that’s when it struck me why the existence of this piece was so irksome to me. This is the internet and this piece of critical garbage has garnered thousands of views, and reaped the benefit of many comments from feminist women of the “thank you so much, you said it in a way I couldn’t” variety that made me realise that this woman’s voice was influential whilst a clearly much smarter guy profoundly demolished the author’s arguments in the comments section to little applause or congratulation. I support feminism enough to not just openly label myself a feminist, but to regularly preach it to everyone I know, so one should assume that I could in some way get behind at least the intention of this writing. But I can’t, I loathe it. I loathe it because feminism if it’s going to progress beyond the point that it is now and be taken seriously by the patriarchy, needs to be serious and more importantly it needs to be credible. We’re beyond the stage of women shouting “give me a voice” in the most perfunctory, basic way. Men already think that women have a voice, but they still need to be convinced that voice is continuing to be manipulated and challenged by years of privilege and assumption. We’re beyond the point of saying “this text features rape, I find it repugnant and misogynist”.  I admit a person’s right to not enjoy watching something that features rape, if they find it too disturbing to watch (although if their reactions to a text are this primitive and emotive, they shouldn’t really be attempting to analyse or converse about it), but that categorically does not make it an anti-feminist text. If anything, the more brutalised and physically assaulted women tend to be in a text the more that text is commenting on the negative effects of a patriarchal society.

Dragons. An obvious symbol of feminine weakness. Right? Oh yeah, she’s butt naked too. Again.

We’re at the point where feminine discourse needs to be challenging masculine discourse in a considered and intelligent way. Don’t get me wrong, this has been happening. A lot. And it started as far back as 1949 when Simone de Beauvoir destroyed the foundations of Freudian theory in the Second Sex and she did so by writing intelligently and with knowledge about her subject. Feminism his been hotly debated in Academia ever since and it’s produced its share of good and bad writing, but a lot of it is good and ultimately that’s how I’ve come to consider myself to be a feminist, because I have no cause to deny the veracity of the position and no reason to feel threatened by it as a philosophy. Yet, I find modern trends in internet feminism a little threatening nevertheless. Some of it is good, but all too often I read online “this text has rape” style arguments that make me grit my teeth in frustration, but are showered with “you’re such a wonderful feminist” responses. These people are, however, unwittingly either alienating a lot of people from wanting to associate with feminism as a brand or they’re stifling them from wanting – or being able – to think critically about these issues since the response is so overtyl emotional  “Alas, I don’t like that x is raped, x is killed, x is sexualised in the text”. “Male gaze, male gaze, male gaze, male gaze” (see my piece on Sucker Punch) is brandished around like the ultimate slayer of all the male, patriarchal Gods and one ultimately cannot argue with a feminist who embraces those words because she must be right because she read about the “male gaze” on wikipedia somewhere….1

Feminism is not about emotion. It’s about fighting for equality where that equality doesn’t yet exist.

The point I’m making here is that, although it’s great that people can debate and discuss things on the internet in ways they couldn’t previously do, it’s also having a detrimental effect since it’s helping to spread terrible ideas like wildfire. These ideas look attractive on the surface and since they’re simple and easy for people to grab hold of and since they often key into people’s emotional reactions to a work, they get disseminated more quickly than the more intelligent and interesting ideas which also tend to be convoluted and difficult. In her article Sady makes a fairly horrible critical slip in her reading of ASOIAF in that she underrates the centrality of Daenerys story and writes it off because it’s “racist” (one has to ask if racism is the same thing as sexism and one has to answer that it isn’t. I also happen to find Buffy the Vampire a little racist at certain points… but that’s another story) In doing so she concludes that there are no empowered or convincing women in the text since all of the others are continually punished for being female and repressed.  Given that Brienne, Catelyn, Arya, Sansa and Daenerys et al are all still firmly in the middle of narrative arcs that – seems to me at least –  to be leading them from oppression to empowerment in different ways, it’s surely somewhat premature to speak about this text in such strong, conlcusive terms. One can speculate and surmise that the narratives aren’t feminist and one can question, for instance, Martin’s attitude towards women if one happens to feel that they are overtly sexualised, but one needs to seriously consider the evidence for and against before condemning both a work and its readership.  I don’t know if one can ultimately argue that ASOIAF is feminist or not. I personally think it is in many respects, but I’d have to work pretty hard to put that argument together, but one can certainly say that it’s a murky, complex text with so much depth and detail that it’s simply foolhardy to try and shout out to the world that it’s so obviously disgusting and full of rape and murder of women that one can easily pinpoint its misogyny2.

I really loathe these kinds of internet arguments and truly wish they would go away.

1The concept of the male gaze was extremely important in the development of feminist film criticism and it’s an extremely important one, but that doesn’t mean one can necessarily simply apply it in it’s most basic form to everything in every situation and automatically be right.

2Since I wrote this “Feminist Frequency has chimed in by stating that “I am now completely caught up on Game of Thrones and I do not understand how anyone with a critical bone in their body can look past all the obscene misogyny and grotesque violence. It’s repugnant. I realize there is a serious lack of good quality television, but at what point do we draw the line and recognize that the oppressive values and representations are too overwhelming to make any kind of justifications” Again, as someone with a lot of critical, internet-wide influence it’s extremely disappointing to see Anita Sarkeesian propagating the idea that one shouldn’t examine a text critically and with nuance. For her there’s simply a “right” and a “wrong” here. Worse, feminists that disagree with her don’t have a critical bone in their body, apparently.

Categories: Literature
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